2012 and GOP Candidates

Dave Weigel on Friday argued that there’s been too much emphasis on disastrous GOP Senate candidates, especially the Tea Party ones; Ramesh Ponnuru follows up on that today by pointing out (again) that Mitt Romney ran ahead of most GOP Senate candidates. I think I agree with the main point each of them makes…but there’s a lot going on here. I’ll go bullet-point style:

* As I’ve said many times, the out-party candidate challenging an incumbent president just isn’t very important.

* The big thing that the out-party candidate can get wrong is being perceived as an ideological outlier; in my view, Romney probably did about as well on that as any Republican could have done in 2012.

* That still leaves open the possibility that Romney lost a point or two on ideology; if so, it was certainly because of the GOP, not him.

* I agree with Weigel that the direct costs of awful Tea Party candidates is probably a bit overstated, and almost certainly gets more attention that it deserves.

* However, the indirect effects are likely large — because fringe primary winners, including those who go on to win general elections, surely deter strong candidates from entering in the first place.

* While it’s impossible to prove a direct one-to-one connection, that recruitment failure was the actual big story of 2012, with Republicans unable to nominate strong candidates in potentially competitive states including Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

* To the extent it’s true, that recruitment disincentive is a potentially huge effect (there can even be third-order effects from it, with Democrats able to deploy resources better because of dud GOP candidates).

* That said…Republicans certainly had solid-on-paper candidates in Hawaii, New Mexico, and North Dakota, and none of them did well. In Wisconsin, they just mistook former Governor Tommy Thompson for a strong general election candidate; can’t blame Tea Partiers for that one.

* Although in at least some of these cases, the party may make it difficult for those candidates to run their strongest races.

* While, again, I think the general point that Romney did okay given the fundamentals is fine, one needs to be very, very, careful about comparing presidential results with any single other statewide race; candidates and campaign can make a large difference in the latter, so one can’t really judge the presidential candidate by simple comparisons to state-election results.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.